Entertainment

Andrea Arnold’s unflinching documentary Cow

Luma, the theme of Andrea Arnold's cow

Luma, the theme by Andrea Arnold Cow
photo: IFC films

The recording lasts only 61 seconds, but it can forever change your perspective on the sad, arduous life and untimely, violent death of a farm animal. It comes in early Cow, Andrea Arnold’s hard-hitting experiential documentary about a dairy cow named Luma who lives on a farm in southern England. Shortly after the farmers separated Luma from another of their newborn calves, she looked directly at the camera and mooed five times in the space of a minute. Arnold refuses to cut away, forcing us to look Luma straight in the eye and hear her screams, and giving us ample time to consider what feelings the cow is trying to express. Even the skeptical among us would have to agree that luma expresses a fear no less deeply felt than our own.

That’s the power of Arnold’s first documentary, in which her directing hand is felt so lightly that our relationship with Luma becomes almost personal. There is no narration or dialogue apart from mooing cows and the occasional overheard utterance of a farm hand. There is no real plot, only Luma gives birth, eats, and give milk in a nonstop cycle to their brutal end. There is no score, just a handful of popular songs overheard in the cowshed. This addition through subtraction results in one of the most compelling wildlife documentaries you will ever see. His observational shooting style is simple but rich in everyday details. His storytelling is morally neutral, nevertheless charged with moments that oblige the viewer to question the way we treat farm animals.

A documentary about a dairy cow might seem a far cry from Arnold’s narrative films, like Aquarium and American honey. But all three films focus on women struggling to make ends meet either socially, economically, or personal detention; her Oscar-winning short film wasp featured a mother of four practically defined by her sexuality. Luma is also defined and valued in a different and more cruel way by her sexuality. Her primary purpose is to crank out calves, a crime against the female body supported and encouraged by doctors who inject her with drugs to “get her cycling again” and insert an arm deep into her vaginal canal, up to the elbow, “to check if he’s clean or not.”

At one point a bull is brought in to impregnatete Luma the beef Couple unaware of their role in their continued exploitation. In the only blatant case of directorial fumbling, Arnold stages the scenery to the groovy beat of Kali Uchis’ “Tyrant” and the cheekiest fireworks this side of Hitchcocks Catch a thief. Luma’s fertility is crucial, because as long as she’s pregnant, she can fulfill her other primary role: milking. To do this, she and dozens of other cows are repeatedly hooked up to a giant circular milking machine around which the cows stand frozen, slaves to an industrial system that literally and figuratively sucks them dry.

Polish cinematographer Magda Kowalczyk shoots at the cow’s eye level and handles Luma’s comings and goings with her hand, save for the rare moment when the annoyed cow hits the camera directly. The images are accompanied by sounds that add to the humiliation of their imprisonment. Whether it’s the hiss of the cautery tool used to dehorn calves, the medieval clatter of the mechanism that keeps Luma motionless while her hooves are scraped, or the gates and chains that reinforce her imprisonment, Luma’s world is filled with sound who are far from nature.

When Luma finally gets a long trip to a green pasture as a gift, it has a liberating effect. It’s also where Arnold best indulges her well-known visual style, a combination of social realism and lyrical poetry. Luma looks downright dizzy as she runs across the field chewing long blades of grass. At night she gazes at the stars and blissfully lays her heavy head on the ground. Even if one believes that Arnold humanizes Luma’s suffering to an unrealistic, activist extreme, Luma herself dismisses that argument by walking towards the shed and refusing to go back inside.

And why should she return to her prison considering what to expect? Arnold wisely refuses to suggest that Luma’s life is one of complete submission to human needs. It’s here for us, no comment needed. Once the cow is past her prime, the farmers (who are portrayed as professionals rather than cruel scavengers) have one last task. At the end, Luma looks exhausted :HHer knees are weak, the folds on her neck are cut deeper, and she can hardly stand on the uneven wooden planks of the milking machine. Editors Nicolas Chaudeurge, Rebecca Lloyd, and Jacob Secher Schulsinger, whose pacing accentuates the monotony of Luma’s narrow-minded existence, maintains the facts to a resolution that is both tragically preordained and chillingly blase.

Cow comes on the heels (or hooves) of Viktor Kossakovsky Gunda, a black and white documentary about the life of a pig and its piglets. While both films attempt to convey the everyday life of a farm animal, Gunda is warmer, more beautiful, and more meditative. Cow is smeared in mud, milk, and amniotic fluid. It’s a harsher version of the same reality, yet avoiding being lecturing or embarrassing the viewer. Still, it’s hard to keep an open mind when there are several hungry cattle eating in her pen, except for Luma, who stares off into the distance and doesn’t eat. Given how deeply rooted we are in Luma’s experience, it’s natural to try to guess her thoughts. Ultimately though Cow cares less about what luma thinks and more about what we think about luma.

https://www.avclub.com/cow-andrea-arnold-review-documentary-1848709867 Andrea Arnold’s unflinching documentary Cow

Andrew Schnitker

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